(Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakyas)
All we are is the result of what we have thought.
Unlike Jesus, the Buddha is sure to make almost anyone’s short list of historical figures who lived in joy. The reason why is well illustrated by his life and his teachings. The epitome of the Buddha’s teachings is shown in this example from Huston Smith’s The World Religions:
People came to the Buddha during his lifetime and asked not who, but what he was. His answer provided not only an identity for himself, but one for his entire message. “Are you a god?” they asked. “No.” “An angel?” “No.” “A saint?” “No.” “Then what are you?” Buddha answered, “I am awake.”
The Buddha foretold his happiness with one phrase – “I am awake”. But he wasn’t just awake in the same way you and I wake up from our night’s slumber. The term he used to describe “awake” actually uses the same root in Sanskrit (“budh”) as enlightened. Thus, the Buddha was describing that he was indeed awake; in fact, he was enlightened. He had discovered the answers to life’s mysteries and had become infinitely joyful by doing so. From the beginning of his ministry to the end, his life was a testament to his infinite bliss. But how are his enlightenment and infinite bliss connected?
To summarize his life, the Buddha began his life as a prince, deeply immersed in worldly pleasures. Somewhere in his twenties, he discovered disease, old age, and death, and decided to renounce his life as a prince. He set off for the woods, where he learned from the Great Hindu masters of the time, and after realizing he had learned all that he could from them, he became an ascetic. After nearly dying from his extreme asceticism, he sat down under the Bodhi tree and found enlightenment. He spent the next forty years teaching enlightenment to anyone who would listen. He was inherently motivated to do so by the belief that there might be at least one or two persons who would listen to his teachings and learn from them.
This last sentence is a fine point as far as living in joy is concerned because I believe part of the Buddha’s joy was found in his belief that he was needed as a teacher in this world. He could have very easily sat under the Bodhi tree, enjoying his enlightenment, for the rest of his life. But he believed people, who inherently were suffering, needed to hear his message, and his loving compassion for them compelled him to try to teach all that he had discovered within his lifetime. He was drawn to people, and his happiness became their happiness as well, for it was in his teachings that he showed them that happiness is the Way.
So what did his teachings encompass then? The Buddha reiterated many concepts from Hinduism, including dharma (sacred duty) and karma (action). However, his main teachings were primarily focused on the following concepts: the Three Jewels, buddha (enlightenment), dharma (sacred duty), and sanga (community); the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Two characteristics pervade these teachings, specifically reason and loving compassion. These will be the focus of our discussion.
Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who has said it, not even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.
-Siddhartha, the Buddha
Reason is a plausible choice for the Buddha, for the religion he created is not only logical but also experimental in nature. Thus, reason, in an enlightened sense, speaks to Buddhism’s inherent empiricism; if there is a cause, there must be an effect (Smith, 98). Yet what do I truly mean when I use the word “reason” and how does that word link to living in joy?
Reason is often used in science as a descriptor, a term that explains how a scientist comes up with a hypothesis and how that hypothesis will be tested. Reason, in this sense, is always inevitably linked with logic and experience. In science, one cannot reasonably come to a hypothesis without logically building on the experience of others – through their experiments and previously tested hypotheses and theories – and on personal experience. The Buddha focused on the latter of these foundations primarily, yet in his creation of the sangha, or community (meaning monastic community or religious order), he recognized that the former must also occur within human experience. For the Buddha, reason derived from personal experience was the greatest testament to a person’s spiritual questioning; if a religious doctrine or belief did not speak to a person’s own experience and reason, then the Buddha would encourage that person to summarily reject it.
How is reason then linked with living in joy? In this sense, the Buddha’s reason has a very similar outcome to Jesus’s acceptance and Rumi’s humility. Reason, based in personal experience, allows you to systematically disconnect other’s thoughts, opinions, etc. from your own. Thus, while searching to discern Truth via reason, you can rely solely upon your own intuition as to what is important and what is not in your spiritual walk. However, do not mistake reason for selfishness. Reason is not subjective, it is objective, and as such, is not colored by ego-centric tendencies. Reason is like detachment in this sense, but we will discuss that characteristic in greater detail in the next section.
In its essence, then, reason links to joy in its lack of ownership. Your reason allows you to understand your own experiences and desires from an outsider’s point of view, without feelings derived from ego like guiltiness or self-destruction. Yet the outsider is still you, so the emotions and tendencies sparked by conflicts with others, like pain and competition, are absent. Think of it like balancing someone else’s checkbook; while you record great losses and great gains, you are not personally attached to those losses and gains, and therefore they do not matter to you.
Thus, you are joyful because reason discerns your soul’s Truth and balances it with your own experience in a noncompetitive and logical manner that separates you from your life’s great losses and gains.
If you maintain a feeling of compassion, loving kindness, then something automatically opens your inner door. Through that, you can communicate much more easily with other people. And that feeling of warmth creates a kind of openness. You’ll find that all human beings are just like you, so you’ll be able to relate to them more easily.
– His Holiness the Dalai Lama XIV, The Art of Happiness (pg. 40)
While reason must be practiced in even the non-analytical mind, loving compassion taps into the very nature of human-ness. We, as a human race, are infinitely bound together by certain characteristics and likenesses. These can include things like the fact that every human on earth possesses a heart (or something that functions for it), a brain, and an ability to cogitate about the largest and smallest of matters. However, Buddhism takes the argument one step further. All things on Earth, beings and non-beings, are infinitely bound together. This belief draws from Hinduism, in which all things are connected by karma and the reincarnation cycle. And it is proven (somewhat) by the comparison of genomes and proteins, living and non-living, in each creature and inanimate object on this Earth. Thus, loving compassion strikes us at our very core; as we are tied to everything on Earth, we must live in consideration of that which is around us. Otherwise, we will die.
And how does loving compassion tie to living in joy, you ask? My reply is yet another question: How can we live life fully if we do not, in some part, live it with and for others? We have already seen in many ways thus far that our lives are not our own. While we believe we have some semblance of control over our lives, we actually do not. A sudden life-changing accident or a bout with long-term illness can tell us that. But what we do know is that we do have control over our inner development, whether spiritual, emotional, or intellectual. And the more we learn about ourselves, the more we realize our inherent ties and similarities to the rest of humanity. Mahayana Buddhism teaches us to share our insight with others, for if we, as individuals, can reach an understanding of ourselves, then what greater understanding could we reach collectively! Thus, in our loving compassion for others and their spiritual journeys, we find joy in our sharing of our gifts, talents, and increased understanding. And if we continue to share authentically, our joy increases exponentially as we see our sharing help others to grow spiritually.